Lockout hurts NHL, but helps Penguins prospects focus on improvement


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There are many people who believe the NHL's ongoing lockout is nothing less than catastrophic for the league.

Not everyone, though.

There are others who feel it is a whole lot worse than that.

For the league. For its member teams. For its players. For just about everyone involved with the game at that level.

Penguins officials won't argue the point -- with their club's fan support and a roster capable of contending for a Stanley Cup, they certainly would prefer to be playing -- but they also think there is at least one small, easily overlooked plus to the NHL being shut down for the past three-plus months.

It has allowed promising young players with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to focus solely on upgrading and polishing their games, and giving them a chance to do it against a higher-than-usual caliber of competition in the American Hockey League because rosters there have been bolstered by players who likely would be in the NHL if it were operating.

"I think it's been very positive, from the standpoint that our prospects aren't worried about other things, [such as] who's getting called up and what's going on in Pittsburgh," said Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as GM of the Baby Penguins.

"They're just focused on their task at hand in Wilkes-Barre, and I think that's huge. A lot of times, no matter what they say, they're still wondering who's getting called up, 'Am I the next guy to get called up,' what's going on ... things that are beyond their control."

Botterill and Tom Fitzgerald, the assistant to the general manager, are former first-round draft choices who also have minor league experience on their resumes.

That means they are keenly aware of how issues like the chances of being promoted can affect a prospect's focus and performance.

And thus, how not having the NHL as an option -- at least for now -- benefits young players whose games remain a work in progress.

"There's no other league these kids can play in," Fitzgerald said. "Eric Tangradi is not going to get sent down [to the AHL]. He's not going to get called up. He's not going to be benched.

"He's not going to be scratched. He's not going to be yelled at. All he's worried about now is playing hockey, and playing it the right way. And his game has really elevated."

Tangradi, a forward, is a pretty good bet to earn a spot on the major-league roster if there is a 2012-13 season, especially if -- as would have been the case under the collective bargaining agreement that expired Sept. 15 -- he would have to clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL.

That wouldn't be the case for defenseman Simon Despres, who still would be exempt from waivers under the old CBA and who plays a position where the Penguins have a surplus of NHL-caliber and waiver-eligible talent.

But even though management would have multiple incentives to view stashing Despres in the minors for another season as a default position if play in the NHL ever begins -- it would eliminate one tough personnel decision, and few 21-year-olds at his position would suffer from extra seasoning in the minors -- he figures to be a serious contender for a spot on the major-league roster.

The time he has spent in Wilkes-Barre since September, along with the more accomplished competition he has faced there, is much of the reason for that.

"The one guy who jumps out for me [as a lockout beneficiary] is Simon Despres, from the standpoint that it's given him a little extra time and prepared his game for the National Hockey League level," Botterill said.

"He's had a big role down there. He's played against top players, he's playing against National Hockey League players down there. He's gotten the confidence of being a go-to player for Wilkes-Barre.

"Instead of worrying about making the [parent] team in September, he's been able to get his game up and going. Whenever we start playing, his game is going to be that much more advanced -- compared to some of the veterans, even -- just because he's been playing over the last couple of months."

While the elevated level of play in the AHL this season might have a negative impact on some win-loss records -- the Baby Penguins opened with four consecutive losses and were in an 0-4-1-1 skid before a 3-2 victory at Syracuse Saturday -- that hardly offsets the long-term benefits the lockout should have on the development of prospects there.

"There is just hockey," Fitzgerald said.

"And I think it really has benefited these young kids' games."

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Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published December 25, 2012 5:00 AM


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